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Foliate Oak September 2014
Things My Mother Said
By Nana K. Adjel-Brenyah
My mother’s favorite thing to say to me was, “I am not your friend,” a gentle reminder against casual treatment. She’d often say, “You are my first born son, my only son,” as a reminder not to die. She loved saying, as a way to keep me humble, “I didn’t have a mother. You’re lucky. You have a mother.”
When the T.V went dark, my mother said, “Good. Now you can read more.” Then, our house at the bottom of a hill lost all its life: gas, water, electric.
One day, I came home to the warm smell of chicken and rice. I hadn’t been able to steal a second burger in the cafeteria at school that day. My stomach was already whining disappointment. It would scream later. At home, the fridge had become a foul smelling box. The range and oven were just decorations. Hunger colored those days.
“Where is this from?” I asked, already carving out a healthy portion from a worn grey pot.
My mother pretended she didn’t hear me. She was studying pages of her massive white bible at the kitchen table. Wide sheets of light pressed through the window and draped her. She spent her days reading that big bible. Its pages wore to film as her fingers fluttered from psalm to psalm. She’d be asleep by the splash of dusk. I, on the other hand, would be up for hours. Trying to do homework by the blue glow of my cell phone, clinging to its light until it died. At night, hunger and I huddled together. I fell asleep thinking one day I would change everything.
I ate the chicken and rice that tasted of pepper and smoke. “How did you make this, Mom?” I asked again. She looked up from her bible and over her thin wire glasses. “Did you pray over your food? Did you say your psalms today?” I ate the food quickly, greedily. I chewed the bones till they splintered in my mouth.
Later, when I was in the backyard, hesitant to return to the dying box as the sun dipped away, I found a patch of charred grass and a small circle of blackened stones and pebbles. An ash moon branded into a sea of wild green grass. I felt proud and ashamed.
Still, I guess it doesn’t matter, but I think about it. Is there anybody left who would make a fire in the backyard for me while I’m elsewhere blaming them for all my problems?
For the record, I know I was lucky, I know I am lucky, I don’t think you’re stupid, I know I am not your friend, I hope you can be proud of me.
Nana K. Adjei-Brenyah is currently working towards his MFA at Syracuse University. He likes thinking about the good he's done or failed to do. His fiction has been featured in Broken Pencil Magazine and Gravel Online Journal.
* * *
By Suzanne Cope
She awoke to the sound of metal hitting wood followed by the faintest of sighs. She lay in bed, awake now, and, aware of the fan humming and the weight of a body a few inches to her left, she tried to focus her mind on the origin of the noise.
She remembered then that she had seen a mouse running across the kitchen floor during dinner. She had screamed and dropped the spoon with which she was feeding their baby, and he had muttered that now he had one more thing to take care of. She picked up the spoon and threw it in the sink and grabbed a clean one out of the drying rack. Oh, like put food on the table, she responded. She had, in fact, bought and made dinner that night, like most nights. Facts she pointed out as their yelling grew in decibel. The baby started crying loud enough that they had to raise their voices even more to make themselves heard.
He pulled out the snap traps and sheets of sticky paper from under the sink, vestiges from the on-going rodent war they had been waging, financed through her calls to their landlord.
Not there, she said, lifting the crying child from the high chair as he pulled the backing from a sheet of sticky paper, the boy can get to it.
He huffed, well then you move it, and then kicked at the snap trap he had just set so that it detonated.
Later, when he went out with a handful of change to buy a loosey from the bodega up the street, she moved the traps far enough under furniture that her son’s curious hands couldn’t grab them. She was asleep by the time he returned.
It was the snap of a trap that had woken her, she realized, one that she had tucked against the wall like the exterminator had told her to. And that last sigh was the sound of life leaving the body now broken in two.
Suzanne Cope has published essays and articles in Blotterature, Blue Lyra Review, New Plains Review, and Danke, among others. Her upcoming book Small Batch will be published in October 2014 (Rowman & Littlefield). She earned a PhD in Creative Nonfiction Pedagogy and an MFA in Creative Writing, both from Lesley University. Suzanne teaches writing at Manhattan College.
* * *
By Jacqueline Doyle
How could I have known? The sun was warm on my shoulders that day as I stopped at the bank of mailboxes outside. There was the usual stack of bills, advertising circulars, credit card offers, catalogs, magazines. Back in the condo, I tossed them on the dining room table, setting aside the envelope with the handwritten address to look at later. I took off my running shoes and headed upstairs for a shower.
* * *
The sun was out. The wind rustled through the trees and dried the sweat from my jog as I walked back from the mailboxes. I can still remember every detail of that long ago Saturday morning. It was almost noon. My neighbor Leona McGarry was walking her black Lab, who wagged his tail and strained at the leash when he saw me. "Hi, Natalie. How are you?" she said. "Fine," I said, and I was. When I got inside I sorted through the mail before tossing it in on the table. I noticed an envelope with no return address. I didn't open it right away.
* * *
Sun streamed through the window in elongated rectangles on the dining room table. The light wavered as the trees swayed in the wind. I left the mail on the table, took off my running shoes, and went upstairs to take a shower. I threw my sweaty running clothes into the hamper. The needles of hot water felt good on my skin. I shampooed my hair twice before turning off the water and stepping out of the tub. I dried myself with an Egyptian cotton towel and wrapped another one around my head like a turban.
* * *
I left the mail on the table, kicked off my shoes, and bounded up the stairs to take a shower. I wasn't thinking about anything in particular. After the shower I walked into the bedroom naked and chose underwear and a bra and jeans and a t-shirt. I towel-dried my hair and dressed. The t-shirt was newly laundered and I pressed it to my nose and inhaled the fresh scent before pulling it over my head. I wondered whether it was too late to go to the Farmer's Market to buy daffodils. I pulled on a pair of socks. When I ran down the carpeted stairs, the first thing I saw was the envelope. I sat on one of the bottom steps to put my running shoes back on.
* * *
The t-shirt smelled good. It was one of my favorites, faded green with a blossoming tree traced in white on the front. I ran a comb through my damp hair and thought about daffodils. The patches of sun on the carpeted stairs were warm under my feet. I sat in a sunny spot to put on my shoes, still thinking about the Farmer's Market and daffodils. I picked up the envelope. It was postmarked Boston. I couldn't think of anyone I knew in Boston.
* * *
My address was handwritten in blue ink on the plain white business-size envelope. I didn't recognize the handwriting at first. I didn't know anyone in Boston. It wasn't until I tore open the envelope and unfolded the letter that I recalled his handwriting. The letter was dated four days ago. Dear Natalie, it started. It's been almost ten years, and maybe you don't even remember me. But I remember you and think of you often. The letter was signed Rick and at first I was flattered. He'd been in love with me once, when I was a sophomore and he was a senior in college. I hadn't treated him very well.
* * *
It's been almost ten years, and maybe you don't even remember me. But I remember you and think of you often. There's something I want you to know, just in case you've worried about it. Our breakup wasn't your fault. I know you're the one who broke it off, but I was so young and so needy, I would have dragged you down with me and I think you knew that.
* * *
Rick was a beautiful boy, the kind of slender, sensitive boy you don't really value in college, or at least I didn't. He'd been a runner in high school and he still ran on the hiking trails in the woods by campus. He had long legs and milky white skin. Hazel eyes with golden flecks in them. Pale blond hair that stood up in tufts. He had a disconcerting stare, like he was plumbing the depths of your soul. He read poetry out loud, and gave me flowers a few times. Daffodils once. It seemed so strange that I was thinking of daffodils when I opened the letter.
I was a bitch with Rick, really. I broke things off when this guy Lloyd on the tennis team started hanging around. I was boy crazy and immature. I didn't treat Rick well. I didn't think about him again.
* * *
I was so young and so needy, I would have dragged you down with me and I think you knew that.
You probably heard that I had a breakdown after I graduated. It was like a deep dark hole I fell into and I thought I'd never get out. Therapy, antidepressants, they even used electro-shock. I've never felt fully alive, fully here since then. The last time I felt really happy was when I was in love with you.
* * *
A real bitch. I didn't know about the breakdown. I wasn't curious enough to find out more about Rick's life after we split up. He'd graduated. He was gone. I liked Lloyd's swagger and sexual experience, spent most of fall semester my junior year smoking weed in his room at his frat. I broke things off when I found out he was cheating on me and I started seeing another guy. Kurt. I always had plenty of boyfriends.
When I got the letter I was seeing a guy named David, who wanted to get married. I didn't know if I was ready yet. I hadn't ever made a real commitment. I thought I was happy the way I was—single, carefree, no obligations, no complications. He made my heart flutter, though, and I knew I didn't want to lose him.
* * *
I've never felt fully alive, fully here since then. The last time I felt really happy was when I was in love with you.
So I wanted to write you to say goodbye, and to tell you that it wasn't your fault. It was already in me, this shakiness, this darkness that keeps coming back.
* * *
I sat down at the table and read the letter again. So I wanted to write you to say goodbye. My hands shook as I leafed through the front pages of the telephone book to find the area code for Boston. I punched the numbers for directory assistance into the phone. No Rick or Richard Margolies listed in Boston. I went upstairs to my computer, logged onto the college website, and checked the online alumni directory. No Rick or Richard Margolies. I Googled his name, and found a doctor, a lawyer, an astronomer, but no one in Boston. I finally called my old roommate Cecily, who didn't know anything. "Was he that good-looking runner? He was sweet. Listen, I've got to go. So great to hear from you! Let's catch up one of these days."
* * *
Love, Rick. I still think about that envelope with no return address lying on the table in the sun.
David and I have been married for eleven years. We have two children—Emily, who's ten, and Bradford, who's eight. I never told David about Rick, but sometimes little things remind me of him. I've replayed the day I got the letter over and over in the years since then. I worry about Emily and Bradford in college, which is not so far off. The terrible fragility of the human heart. How can I protect them from themselves and others, against what they might do or what might be done to them?
Once in a while I search Facebook and the Internet, but there's no trace of anyone who sounds like Rick. When I moved out of the condo, I left a forwarding address, and for a long time I hoped I'd get another letter, but I didn't. There's still no listing for him at the alumni association. Last year on a business trip to Boston I found myself looking into the faces of every forty-something man on the street, so aware of their potential sadness and vulnerability. I know Rick's depression wasn't my fault. I was young and immature. How could I have known how deep his feelings ran? If I had let him down gently, or for a better reason, it wouldn't have changed his life. Even so, I'd like to talk to him. I know much more about love now. It's probably too late to explain that to him, but maybe "goodbye" didn't mean what I thought it did, and I'll see him again.
He won't be a shy 21-year-old boy any more, but of course that's the Rick I remember. How he ducked his head the first time he asked me out, and blushed pink when I said yes. We went to a movie, and he held my hand in the darkness, his own trembling slightly. He didn't care about what he wore, and his corduroy jeans and plaid flannel shirts were always rumpled. His pale hair stood up at crazy angles, like he'd just gotten out of bed. "I'll do anything for you," he said. "Anything. But not hair gel." He had a wonderful laugh, a sudden surprised shout of laughter, and a slow smile that illuminated his face. I remember a poem he read to me about a woman "lovely in her bones," and how afterward he traced each of my vertebrae with his finger. "She taught me touch," he repeated, caressing the soft skin inside my arm and elbow and wrist, tickling my palms. He liked John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, and the French existentialists. He hadn't had a lot of girlfriends, and he made me feel like a revelation. I think I loved him too, until I didn't. I felt the glow of his affection and it warmed something in me, feelings I wasn't ready to understand yet or truly reciprocate.
Last fall Emily brought home a box of daffodil bulbs, a fundraiser for her school's music program, and we planted them in the back yard. When they burst into bloom this spring—their pale yellow heads raised to the sun, so innocent, so hopeful, so full of joy—I couldn't help myself. I started to cry.
Jacqueline Doyle has work in South Loop Review, Confrontation, South Dakota Review, Front
Porch Journal, Bluestem Quarterly, and Southern Indiana Review, among others. A recent
Pushcart nominee, she also has a “Notable Essay” listed in Best American Essays 2013. She
lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
* * *
Last Train to Strasbourg
By Alexis Larkin
"Last Train To Strasbourg"
Standing in the shadows of the French Revolution, Renee took aim and stared down the sight of her rifle at Place de la Bastille. Her quarry may have been an overstuffed teddy rather than liberté, but that hardly meant the stakes weren't as high as they had been for her countrymen storming the prison all those centuries ago. She felt the full weight of her burden as Janus ran his hand from her shoulder down to her wrist and nuzzled his mouth against her ear.
"Maybe if I help you aim," he said.
Renee missed the mark again. She giggled, but the carny running the Christmas market's shooting gallery looked less than amused, using the cigarette dangling from his lips to light another.
"Another round … I mean 'un plus,'" Janus said.
"Should we go to dinner?" Renee asked, wrapping her arms around his waist.
"You need to win a prize. I won't rest until my Texas shooting skills rub off on you. But how about some sustenance? Hot chocolate?" he said.
"Chocolat chaud. Make mine with peppermint, it's my favorite," Renee said.
"I should know that after a month together," Janus said. He kissed Renee hard, pulling her close until there wasn't an inch between them before slowly releasing her and heading towards the refreshment stand.
Renee breathed deeply as she considered that month. It was an impossibly short time for her to fall for anyone, let alone a man she had no business even caring for in the first place. There was something different about Janus, though, that nearly made her feel alive inside again.
Street lights flickered on over the square and its market. The scent of the season's first snow mingled with kettle corn from the next stall. Perhaps that was why Renee missed the familiar scent of Aqua Velva that should have alerted her to the man taking up the next shooting position long before he spoke.
"When you finish here mademoiselle, you should visit the Christmas market at Strasbourg," Henri said, inspecting his rifle.
"I don't think so. I have shopping left to do in Paris," Renee said.
"Ma chérie, you must go. Tonight. There is room to maneuver in Strasbourg. You shop without Parisian hassle," Henri said.
Renee grabbed the man's arm when he started to walk away. Henri's body stiffened for a second before he regained an easy smile and answered her with a whisper.
"This comes straight from the top, kitty cat. No use arguing with me."
Renee noticed the carny had perked up and was taking a break from smoking long enough to look at them. Henri must have noticed too.
"If the lady is going to challenge me, I should at least stake her to a game," he said, tossing a few euros on the platform.
"My guy has useful intel on their Southwest facility," Renee said just loud enough for Henri to hear. She aimed and cleared the target in front of her.
"Our focus has shifted to Hamburg," Henri said.
"Use Janus to develop contacts there," Renee said. She aimed again, this time hitting the farthest target on the wall.
"He isn't connected enough to anyone important," Henri said.
"Janus knows more than you think. It's shocking what I've gotten from him without raising the slightest suspicion," Renee said.
"You're wrong. The other side knows he has been compromised, but not how. You must do it tonight," Henri said.
"Not now. I'm being watched too closely. I don't know by whom, but I can feel it," Renee said.
"We are all being watched at all times. That's never stopped you before," Henri said.
In rapid fire, Renee took down five targets in a row. The carny even exclaimed over her win, but Renee no longer paid him any attention. She drew a small pistol from her purse and held it under her jacket against Henri.
"Not with Janus. Please," Renee said with a desperation she had not known for years.
"If not me, it will be another to visit you and then another to do the job if you refuse. The result will be no different for your friend." Henri placed one hand gently on the barrel, turning it toward the ground, and his other hand on Renee's cheek. "This bullet isn't for me; give it to Janus in Strasbourg. As the equation cannot change, let us be the constants."
Renee watched as Henri walked away, slipping into the carnival crowd and out of sight. She thought an eternity had passed when she felt a tap on her shoulder, but she had the presence of mind to resheath her pistol before turning around. There was Janus, greeting her with a piping hot mug.
"Wow! Can't believe you won," he said.
"Thanks to your Wild West skills," Renee said.
"I was afraid it was the influence of that geezer you were talking to. Anyway, no peppermint hot chocolate so I got you a candy cane to go with the drink. Oh, honey, please don't be upset," Janus said.
Renee wiped a tear from her cheek and dunked the candy cane into her drink, slowly stirring it. "I'm not upset. It means so much to me that you even tried. Hey, how about a real adventure? Let's skip dinner and take the last train to Strasbourg to visit the Christmas market tonight." She could not bring herself to look at Janus's face as she spoke.
A moment passed before Janus enveloped her in his arms. "I was thinking it was time to go to Strasbourg myself. Drink up sweetie, we'll head out once you're all finished," he said.
Renee finally looked in his eyes, deciding to treasure these last moments together, moments she was sure she would never experience with anyone again. She drank, thinking the candy cane responsible for the hot chocolate's odd flavor. As she reached the last drop, Renee felt her breath labor and the sky above Bastille made its terminal turn from dusk to dark.
Alexis Larkin lives and writes in northern New Jersey. Her poetry and short fiction has been published in Circa, Fat City Review, Barnstormer, Pea River Journal, Prompt Literary Magazine, and Treehouse. She can be reached at www.alexislarkin.com and @AlexisTLarkin on Twitter.
* * *
By Megan Schikora
Their weekend home in Michigan is drawing to a close. They had spent it dashing between friends and relatives who demanded their time, and all who observed the couple were pleased at how they seemed to be getting on, adjusting to their new life together in Chicago, a move they had made two months prior. During the visit, Patrick’s booming laugh and unbounded energy had thoroughly charmed everyone in her life; it always did. The ease and speed with which he had endeared himself to them made her marvel. Mr. Charisma.
There was something about the way he deferred to her mother, the way he jostled and hugged her nieces and nephews like they were his own blood, the way he back-slapped and swapped stories and drank whiskey with her male friends, that made it seem like he had been there all along. A consensus formed that Molly had lucked out with this one, and throughout the weekend, she encountered many knowing smiles and intimations that a very happy engagement was surely on the horizon.
Molly didn’t tell anyone about the handfuls of Ativan and Ambien bottles she found under the bathroom sink, the hole in the drywall she hid with a generic Bed Bath & Beyond print. She just smiled back, tugged at the baggy wool sweater sleeves covering the bruises on her wrists, stuck to small talk. The sudden jolting polarity between her inner and outer life has left her bewildered and mute.
After a big family brunch at his parents’ house and all the protracted goodbyes, they finally climb into his Jeep to begin the journey back to, Molly feels, the resumption of a sentence. And at almost the precise moment they pull onto the highway: a blizzard, sudden and apocalyptic, blinding in its wrath. The road vanishes in front of and beneath them; their sudden
seeming weightlessness as they helplessly skid forward takes her breath away and makes her hurriedly tap off the radio. Patrick’s knuckles are white at the wheel, his back rigid.
The Jeep slows to a crawl, narrowly missing other cars, continuously slipping and drifting and starting to spin, righting itself just in time. But cars all around them, every fifty feet or so, are losing control, sliding into one another, into the ditch, into the median. Still the Jeep creeps forward, and as they pass each incapacitated vehicle, Molly sees masks of shock on the faces of those inside as they pull out cell phones to call for help. She and Patrick are silent, except for his sputter as a Bronco roars past them, “Fucker’s gonna kill somebody!” Still they creep forward, and about fifteen minutes later, having hardly covered any ground, they come across that Bronco. It is overturned, on fire, in the median. A person lies beside it in the snow.
“Patrick, stop!” The force of her voice surprises them both. He does as he’s told, sliding to a harrowing halt on the shoulder, and without thinking, Molly flings open the passenger door and runs. As she does, slipping several times in her slick-bottomed sneakers, a series of terrifying revelations crystallize before her: this had just happened. She is about to be the first one on an accident scene. She has no medical training, or even inclination, whatsoever. She changes the channel during surgical close-up scenes on “Grey’s Anatomy”. She has no idea what she is about to see, or what she will do, or if she will be too immobilized by horror to do anything. And yet here she is, hurtling toward this person, heart and legs and adrenaline pumping.
He’s just a boy. Twenty, maybe. No jacket, just the nondescript twenty-something uniform of jeans and a button-down over a t-shirt. He could have easily been on his way to church, or a sports bar to meet buddies, or a part-time job at the mall. But the top half of his body is grotesquely perpendicular to the bottom half, and his head, which broke the windshield
as he was catapulted through it, is rapidly swelling, caricaturing his features. Somehow the worst part, though, as Molly drops to her knees to assess him, is that he is still conscious.
“What’s your name, love?” Again, she doesn’t recognize her voice. It sounds far away. And his, in turn- “Ryan”- is small, childlike, calm. He blinks up at her. Why is he so calm? Or do dying and calm look the same?
“Ryan, you’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay, okay?” She says this repeatedly, aware of her inanity but unable to find other words. Her natural instinct is to touch him, perhaps smooth his hair or rub his arm, but no part of him appears unbroken and available for touching without agony. She kneels there helplessly. Then, realizing how fast the swirling snow is blanketing him, she removes her fuchsia pea coat and gently drapes it across him.
Others have seen the burning overturned Bronco, the boy lying next to it, have called 911, have pulled over to help. They come running, and three groups quickly form: one joining Molly, surrounding Ryan, another gawking from several feet away, and the third, all men including Patrick, surveying the car, discussing in urgent tones what should be done. Could it explode? No one knows for sure. But Ryan cannot be moved; the fire has to be extinguished. One man in coveralls and a Carhartt jacket barks with a foreman’s authority, “Grab some snow, guys!”, and the simple genius of this idea breaks like sunlight across them all. The men grab handfuls, armfuls of wet runny show and begin lobbing it into the exposed undercarriage of the car. Within minutes, the fire is out.
“Keep him talking,” a reasonable-sounding voice above Molly repeats. She looks up and sees that this voice, the same one that said an ambulance was on its way, belongs to a middle- aged woman with a steel gray ponytail and dangly silver earrings. So Molly continues to hover over Ryan, asking him questions. Where does he live? Who should we call? But after uttering
his name, Ryan’s voice has diminished to garbled incoherence. He continues to blink up at her. “Try to find his wallet!” she cries to the men hovering around the Bronco.
Something else: at one point, she looks over and sees Patrick, sees him with the others, shoveling snow into the burning car, and feels her chest swell as if too small for its contents. This- this is her man, who knows what to do, who will make this better somehow. This is who he really is, the last two months only a temporary aberration.
But he doesn’t come to her once the fire is out, doesn’t respond to the flutter of her beckoning fingers. He instead joins the gawkers, shrinking away from her, and finally turning his back on her in anxious, flurried conversation with the others. Ambulance coming any minute. Everyone called. Accidents up and down M-14. Treacherous.
Something else: the Beach Boys, blasting from the Bronco this whole time; in spite of the accident, the stereo has not been crushed. That’s what he had been listening to when this happened. Lyrics about California girls and surfing and fast cars pour from the wreck: sunny, boyish fantasies gruesomely juxtaposed with twisted metal and a young twisted body.
The foreman type approaches her, removes his Carhartt jacket, rests it on her shoulders. “You look cold,” he says simply. He has a great deal of kindness and weathering around the eyes.
“Ryan, where does it hurt?” The absurdity of her question galls her. His response is something like a gargle.
The ambulance rumbles onto the scene, its wailing siren and flashing lights creating the effect of a splashy TV crime drama. Ryan disappears into it, strapped to a spinal board, and is whisked away without any of the ceremony or fanfare Molly somehow expects. “That kid’s a goner,” the gray-haired woman predicts. No one contradicts her.
There is nothing left to do. Molly and some of the others drift numbly to the Bronco, not yet willing to disband. The Fire Department will come eventually and deal with the car. But in the meantime, there in the back, spied through broken glass, is the heavy, collegiate chemistry textbook. There is the Tigers baseball cap, brim slightly frayed. And there, still, are the Beach Boys, melodic and surreal, intermingled with the heat still humming noisily from the dashboard. The keys are in the ignition. Chemistry and Tiger baseball and California girls, like on any other Sunday afternoon.
The cold is setting in for the bystanders, slowly and silently driving them back to their cars. Many of them pause as they drift away and look back, as if expecting something else to happen. Nothing else happens. Molly makes her way back to the Jeep. Patrick is leaning against it, arms folded across his chest, jaw tight, waiting for her. And as she meets his gaze, all sense of capability leaves her. Hysteria climbs her insides like a vine.
He will put her in the Jeep, crank up the heat, fold her into his arms, hold her there until the violent shaking stops. He will tell her everything will be okay, that he loves her. He will be who she thought he was when they met, when he asked her to come to Chicago. He will be who he really is.
Instead, he hands her the keys. “I need you to take the wheel.”
“Patrick.” Her mouth forms the small O of shock. She looks west, around at the walls of whiteness pressing in on them, back at him. Accidents up and down M-14. Treacherous.
“I’m so tense right now, Molly. I’m a wreck. Please. Just do this.” He walks around to the passenger side, gets in. She takes the wheel.
As they crawl through the storm, Molly realizes in a slow syrup that she is still wearing the foreman’s jacket, and that Ryan was taken away still draped in hers. She calls the University
of Michigan Hospital, closest one to the scene; surely that’s where they took him. She describes, explains, asks for information. Name? Ryan. Last name? Unknown.
“He was wearing a plaid button-down,” she offers. He likes the Beach Boys.
“And who are you to the victim, Miss?” The woman on the other end is trying to be patient.
“I’m—“ Molly grapples with words, fails. “I’m no one.”
She is put on hold, left there. She hangs up, calls back, tries again. The same thing happens. Patrick looks out the window. She concentrates on the road. They don’t talk.
It isn’t over, won’t be for several months. And it will get much, much worse before then. But during this drive, which normally takes five hours but today takes twelve, a small knot of knowledge issues forth from her murkiest recesses, the knowledge that she too will be plunged headlong through shattering glass, then utter blackness, and will eventually emerge, conscious, on the other side.
Megan Schikora lives in Metro Detroit. Her work has also appeared in The Crooked Steeple, BlazeVOX, and Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment.
* * *
Last Man Standing
By Frank Scozzari
The icy water had been rising steadily for the past hour and was now above the upper deck of the bulldozer, and despite her every effort, Ingrid was nearly completely submerged in it, stretching now with each new surge just to keep her mouth above the waterline. Throughout the night she had been the brave one; the one who had chanted words of encouragement to the others and who had given hope when there was no hope left to be given. She had watched as the others had been swept away by the river, enduring their hapless cries, until there was only two remaining.
Now her time had come.
Her fingers, cold and numb, and weak from clinging to the cold metal for more then three hours, were finally giving in. The strength in them was utterly gone.
“I can’t hold on,” she yelled.
“You must hold on!” Benjamin shouted back.
Benjamin firmed a one-hand grip on the ladder bar and reached out with his free hand, grabbing a tight hold of her collar. He looked into her desperate eyes is. The water rushed by above her chin.
“Hold on!” he cried.
But Ingrid could not. She let out an involuntary yelp, her hand opened, and although Benjamin’s grasp tightened, the strength of the current quickly broke her free. He watched as she was whisked away downriver into the darkness of the night.
Now Ingrid was rushing in a torrent downstream, helplessly thrashing her arms in the white, churning water, to no avail. In an instant she was swirling beneath the water, the vastness of it pressing in upon her with overwhelming force. She could not tell which way was up and which way was down. Nor did it matter. It was the river’s choice which direction she would go. Then she was at the surface again, gasping for air. She came against a boulder, which hurled her in another direction. Before she could pull herself back upright, she was under the water again, completely submerged in it. Her helpless arms could no longer paddle against the wakes. Her body was too exhausted and numb to fight it.
If only it came easy, she thought.
Like a stone dropping through a hay chute.
Like a river finding its ocean.
I must let the river take me, she told herself.
Yet the life in her made her fight. As natural as it is to breathe in air, it was unnatural to inhale water, and despite her absence of will, the breath that brought her life was not something her body would give up easily.
Momentarily breaching the surface, she felt the cold night air rush past her face and she breathed it in hungrily. Then she was under it again, twirling uncontrollably.
You can’t fight a river, she told herself. You cannot fight something bigger and stronger than you.
And with this revelation, she let go, in the same manner as one would exhale their last breath, and her body went limp, and she let the river take her in the way it saw fit. She found herself flat on her back, face up, feet first, rushing down in the current with her arms trailing back.
Above was the night. The rain had stopped. And rushing past was the tall, dark forest and the upper ridge of the river gorge, beyond which was dark sky. She saw the stars sweeping past, and then a peak of a bright light flashing by, and she saw in her mind a place that she loved on the shore of a river which she had visited many times and wished to return. She saw a sun blazing brightly in a blue sky; a fire on a camp stove; a meteor streaking through the night. All her life’s pleasures and all the good things she had found in her short journey of twenty-two years, now revived in her and came rushing back.
She curved down the canyon, her body flowing like a piece of rubber, oscillating over the wakes and swells through the path of least resistance. Though she came against boulders and was hit by branches and debris, they were vague collisions now, seemingly occurring outside her body, like distant planets colliding in outer space. The frigid water was like a morphine, making her body comfortably numb. And she was no longer afraid. Her sense of panic was gone. Within she found a calmness as she rode the cascades, carefree and indestructible, down through the deepest portion of the gorge; sliding between huge boulders of granite, cascading over waterfalls, until a final vertical plunge washed her out into a wide portion of the river.
She reached with her feet but the river was still too deep to find bottom. She could see that the steep walls of the gorge had given way to gentle slopes of a mountain forest, and there were sand embankments on either side. The stars were bright overhead, but the light was gone.
She hit something that pulled her like a giant hand, but it broke loose. She hit something again, the branch of a fallen tree, which snatched her from the river like a ladle. She looped beneath it, popping up on the opposite side, and found herself completely upside down with her arms and legs wrapped around it. She saw the shore, not far away, and she pulled her way toward it. The water was still rushing against her, but as she rose higher the strength of it lessened. Struggling, pulling, and struggling again, she eventually reached shallow water beneath her and she dropped herself into it.
She laid there on the bank of the river, partially submerged in water, her back resting against the sand, gazing up into the dark foliage of a grand old sycamore tree. She could feel herself breathing heavily. Her whole body felt numb, and it was probably a good thing, she thought. But through the numbness she began feeling the cold, and within minutes she could not stop her body from shivering.
Must not let the fire go out, she thought. Must find shelter.
She crawled from the water, up the short distance to the top of the embankment, and tumbled down the other side into a ditch filled with sycamore leaves and mulch. She closed her eyes and let the blackness surround her, but it was not long before her whole body began trembling again. In a sweeping motion, she reached with her arms and pulled the sycamore leaves in close and around her. She raked them into a pile which rose along her sides, and when there were no more leaves, she dug with her nails into the soft earth and pulled up mud and debris which she packed on top of the leaves until she was completely covered in it.
Again her mind began to fade. And for a moment she found herself back in the river, clinging to the bulldozer; surrounded by the nine frightful faces. They had climbed on to the Cat D8 bulldozer in hopes of crossing the river and reaching the Maricopa Highway. With the storm worsening, the group leaders had decided it was best to leave the camp and make way for their cars. Once they reached the highway, they thought, all would be well. No one knew that the diesel engine would stall halfway across the river. No one could have foreseen rainfall that would not stop, and a river that would keep rising.
For several hours they clung to the steel, molded body of the bulldozer, which offered little in terms of places to grip. Everyone had to search beneath the frigid water with numb fingers to find an edge. There were children among them, and they put the four twelve-year-olds on the upper deck; the two youngest ones were placed in the driver’s seat where there were levers they could cling to. But the water continued to rise, and with it came swift-moving branches and debris, and slowly, despite everyone’s best effort to hold them, they began to drop off. It became a matter of self-survival. Eventual the water level became too high, and too cold, and too swift, and even the strongest among them could no longer hold on. One by one they disappear into the darkness.
And now Ingrid could hear their cries again.
When the light of day is gone, she thought, the darkness of night takes away all hope. And there is no such darkness as the darkness that comes just before the light except for the darkness when there is no more light. And it can get so dark, she thought, that the light of your soul is taken eternally. And she recalled a time when she was a child, alone and lost in a forest at night. The blackness was so complete, she could not see to put one foot in front of the other, and she felt this fear again, and her body began trembling again.
In a mindless panic, she pulled more leaves and mud around her. She tried to wallow deeper into the earth. The pile rose high, weighing upon her chest, until it seemed to be a mound of earth with only her face exposed.
Finally she ceased. It is no use, she thought. She could feel the cold still piercing deeply into her bones. I will freeze to death. It is my fate. In her quest to live life, to swallow up as much as she could as quickly as she could, she would loose it. Nature gives, but also takes.
Then she remembered the moment in the river when she acquiesced. You cannot stand against a rising tide, she thought. You must flow with it.
And in that instant, she let the life in her release, and all that she had known and all that she had been was surrendered unequivocally. And she immediately felt a peaceful calm come over her. She was no longer lost, alone in the forest. She was warm again, and she saw the light once more, momentarily flashing across the sky, and every ounce of fear that had been in her body, was there and then abolished. She closed her eyes and slept.
The morning sunlight came crashing through the leaves of the grand sycamore tree, awaking Ingrid with its brightness. She could feel the weight of the mud upon her, heavy on her chest. And she could hear the sound of footsteps crunching through foliage, distantly at first, but coming closer until they were upon her. And when she looked up, there were three men standing over her, with white helmets and bright yellow parkas and rescue gear strapped to their waists and on to their backs. Large, black letters; S A R, were written across the crest of their helmets.
Kneeling over her was a friendly face; that of a man in his mid-thirties with a brown beard and blue eyes.
“How are you feeling,” he asked.
She nodded her head.
“Do you have any pain?”
Ingrid shook her head.
“We’re here to help you. You just need to relax.”
Ingrid nodded again.
The man briefly examined her, shinning a penlight in her eyes and taking her vitals.
“What’s your name?” he asked, as he continued his examination.
“Okay Ingrid, everything is going to be okay.”
Ingrid acknowledged with a nod.
Pulling away the mud, the man ran his hands down her legs checking for broken bones. Then he checked her ribs and put pressure on her abdomen.
“Do you feel that?”
“Does it hurt?”
The man looked into her eyes again and said, “We are going to lift you now.”
She was pulled from the mud and wrapped in a thermal blanket. She could feel straps being pulled snugly across her body. Each of the men had a radio, strapped to their utility belts, and she could hear one of them crackling now.
“It is Ingrid,” one of the other men said into his radio. He looked down at a list of names scribbled on the notepad. “Ingrid Simpson.”
The radio spoke again, cracking out an inaudible human voice, to which the man replied; “No, she’s the only one.”
The radio spoke once more.
“That’s a Ten-Four. We came all the way up along the south side of the river, from below the Sespe Gorge.”
The man paused for the radio to speak again.
“That’s right. All the way up from Tar Creek. There was no one else. There were no other signs of life.”
Ingrid felt the sensation of being lifted, and she was carried, over uneven terrain. She lay comfortably flat on the gurney as the men cut through marsh-like underbrush and up a second embankment. She could hear them speaking to one another, and into the radio, though their voices were muddled and distant. She could hear birds chirping and the river below, flowing eternally, though it was all very dream-like. Above was blue sky, and white clouds, through which broke rays of sunlight.
She took a deep breath, feeling the cold air go down deep into her lungs, appreciating it now more than ever before.
They followed along a trail that led up and out of the canyon, to where an all-terrain vehicle waited. When they neared the rim, the sunlight broke completely through, casting sheets of yellow and gold across the distant mountains. They were beautiful rays of yellow and gold, Ingrid thought, full of light and life. And she could feel the warmth of them, and the freshness of the air, which she breathed in greedily, and she smiled.
Pushcart Prize nominee Frank Scozzari resides in Nipomo, a small town on the California central coast. His award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines including The Emerson Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Tampa Review, Pacific Review, Eleven Eleven,South Dakota Review, Minetta Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, The Broken Plate, Roanoke Review, and Short Story America, and have been featured in literary theater.
* * *
Inspired by Botticelli's Primavera
By Sarah Vernetti
Rose sank down in her seat even though she knew Ryan couldn’t see her through the tinted windows of her car. Just as she’d expected, at 8:03 a.m., he emerged from the casino, carrying his uniform under his arm and looking down at his phone as he walked across the employee parking lot.
Rose knew the time was right, and she approached him with confidence. Ryan finally looked up from his phone and squinted in the harsh desert sun.
“I can’t do this anymore,” said Rose, the words coming out with such force that they were accompanied by a ray of sunlight. Her lips parted further, and the tiniest sparrow emerged from her mouth.
Next came a delicate vine dotted with flowers: roses and periwinkles and oleanders. They kept going, their size increasing as they made their way toward the ground. The vine coiled at Rose’s feet, a pile of springtime lying there for the curious onlookers to ponder.
Rose knew her ordeal had almost reached its end when the green vine gave way to scraggly roots. Finally, she coughed, and a handful of the darkest, richest soil burst from her mouth in a small cloud.
Everyone stood in silence. Such vibrant flowers are rare in the desert. Ryan, in particular, looked at her with disgust. His co-workers muttered among themselves, except for one woman who ran back into the casino, claiming she was “going to find help.”
The security guards approached her with caution. She didn’t resist when they led her away. After all, she’d merely told the truth, exchanging one form of freedom for another.
Sarah Vernetti lives in Las Vegas. When she isn't writing about travel, she's crafting short stories. Her fiction has been published in Black Denim Lit, Postcard Shorts, A Story in 100 Words, and Nailpolish Stories. Sarah holds a Master's degree in Art History from the University of Kansas.
* * *
By Randy L. White
I hated my younger brother, Don. After watching one too many wrestling shows, he began his wrestling career, calling himself the Caped Avenger. He would jump onto my back, wrestle me to the ground, and put that choke hold on me, turning my face red. I hated him then to the point of wishing he would get choked himself, so he could know what it felt like.
I always managed to break free and pulverize him. I didn’t mind the whippings from Dad. In a way I felt I deserved it after Don got what he deserved. It was worth it. At least that’s the way I felt until our visit to the Westfield Zoological Park.
As we waited in a line that barely moved, the July sun glued our shirts to our backs. I knew this visit was Mom’s way of saying summer break would soon be over. I would rather have gone south, to Laurinburg, with Uncle Ken and my older brothers, Mark and Jim, but there wasn’t enough room.
“You kids better be good or this is the last time I’ll take you anywhere,” Mom warned us with a stern finger.
“We will be,” I said, promising for Kim and Don too. I wasn’t really worried, she always threatened us before going anywhere; it was family tradition. Just like my younger sister Kim, she was always getting her way, smacking on her precious cherry gum, a real smart ass. At least she didn’t copy me like Don. He was always tagging along, getting in my way—or worse, in trouble.
“I go.” Don broke free and ran for the main entrance barred by a series of gates.
“Get back here!” Mom shouted, waving at me to follow him.
“Great!” I chased him down and hauled him back to Mom. He squirmed like a worm trying to escape my grip, a waste of time. I was three years older, faster, and twice as strong; he didn’t stand a chance.
She snatched him by the shoulder and bent down. “You want to go home?”
“No. We go!” Don pointed at the main entrance.
“We have to wait our turn,” said Mom. “Be good and stay with your brother.”
“Mom,” I whimpered and gave her my lost orphan look. “You mean watch him?”
“Andy is a whiner,” Kim said, snickering. She popped a bubble in my face and shook her head. The bright red ribbons in her hair swung back and forth.
“Shut up little red riding hood,” I said.
“Mom,” Kim yelled. “Andy’s talking mean.”
“That’ll be enough!” Mom whirled around. “Get along or we’re going home right now.” She tapped her foot, waiting for a reply.
“I want to stay,” Kim said, and I begged with her as back up.
“Start acting like you have some manners. All of you.” She gave each of us the look; we all knew well what it meant, for Mom had an uncanny way of tightening the skin about her eyes as she focused her cool and calculating stare upon us.
“Okay,” Don grumbled as he folded under the pressure of Mom’s stare.
The line moved forward and soon Mom paid our way in. “There’re a lot of people here so stay close,” she ordered us once we were through the spinning bars and away from the crowded entrance. She opened the map and studied the layout of the zoo. It had a long stone path weaving in and out of exhibits.
“I want to see the birds,” Kim demanded with a chirping pout.
“I want to see the lions,” I roared.
“Me wants to see monkeys.” Don grunted, leaning over and scratching his armpit.
“First we’ll see the birds.” Mom pointed the way.
“Why do girls always go first?” I demanded.
“It’s called having good manners. That’s why girls always go first,” Mom replied.
Smacking her gum, Kim bubbled with delight as I grunted.
“Besides, the exhibits are laid out this way.” Mom turned toward the birds. “Next we’ll see the lions and then the monkeys.”
“No!” Don moaned, grunting harshly.
“Okay, now that everyone’s on board, let’s go,” Mom said. We raced ahead of her up the stony path toward the bird display.
I had to admit it made sense to first see the birds, then the lions, I ignored Kim’s smug look as we arrived at the bird display and its chirping musical. While most of the birds clung to their perches, waiting to be fed, others fluttered around their cages; their colored feathers varied like last week’s Fourth of July fireworks show.
“Oh look!” shouted Kim, pointing to a pair of pink flamingos.
I did not see why she admired those birds and their knobby knees. They stood there and did nothing. It must be the color: pink; of course, girls, I decided, rolling my eyes. I moved to the next exhibit, a pair of eagles.
The whole bird display amazed us as we moved from one cage to the next. Kim fed an ostrich her bubble gum. It swallowed the gum in one gulp. The birds liked her for some reason. Kim pointed to the peacocks; their feathers dazzled me. They were never this colorful in the library books. Here they were living and bold, and even the TV peacock paled next to a real one.
“I’m tired of looking at these dumb birds,” grumbled Don. “Let’s go see the monkeys,” he begged Mom. Scratching under his arm, he hopped around on bowed legs.
“Hey, wait a minute,” I jumped in.
“Andy’s right. First we see the lions,” Mom said. Don lagged behind until we arrived at the overlook to the lions’ habitat.
Across a twenty-foot moat was a grassy clearing with a small pond and several huge slabs of rock placed against the back wall, creating several shallow caves for the lions. A small waterfall dripped near where the lions lounged on the rocky cliffs. Ten or so lions and lionesses, a pride, prowled the little grassland and caves. A young lioness leaped from a stone perch to the cave, where a lion mounted her.
“Turn away,” Mom ordered us; she covered Don’s bulging eyes. The skin about her eyes seriously tightened, and I knew better than to complain, wondering what the big deal was. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen a dog hump a person’s leg or other things when it was excited. After I could look again, I studied those proud and magnificent creatures moving about. Just one of those lion’s paws could knock a man’s head clean off his shoulders. The lionesses were sleeker with their thin manes, playfully attacking each other, moving like whirlwinds of fur and claws.
We stayed a good twenty minutes before Don spilled soda on Mom’s shirt and we had to go to the bathrooms so she could clean her shirt.
“Let’s see the elephants,” I begged Mom as she returned from the Ladies Room.
“Monkeys,” Don grunted at her.
“I promised him. Let’s go.” Mom led the way down the stone path to a sign saying: “Primates Exhibit.”
“Stay close and be good,” she warned Don, pulling on his arm.
“I do,” he responded, swinging loose from her grip. He dashed toward the rattling cages and stopped in front. Don paced up and down like a trapped ape, watching the other children feed the apes and monkeys. When we arrived, he focused on Mom’s purse and the peanut stand just off to our left.
I read the sign listing the species of monkeys in the cages. The scientific names were confusing; they call it Latin. Mom sounded like she had a mouth full of marbles when she tried to pronounce the names.
“Need peanuts for monkeys,” Don pouted, tugging on her purse.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It only costs a dollar.”
“I guess.” She rummaged through her purse for some money, removing a compact, tissues, keys, and other women’s stuff. She handed me a five-dollar bill. “Get a bag and bring me the change,” she said. “Take him with you.”
“Okay.” I guided Don to the peanut seller. We waited in line. After the woman ahead of us seemed to order out the entire cart, we bought a small bag of hot peanuts.
The seller, a man with a drooping mustache and puffy lips, handed over the brown paper bag of peanuts and the change. Once I returned Mom’s money, we headed for the monkey cages with the warm peanuts.
“Give me some,” Don demanded, holding out his dirty hands.
“In a minute,” I teased him, trying to keep him at shoulder length.
“Mom,” Don whined.
“Oh here,” I said, dumping him a handful to shut his mouth. Why did he always get his way? I tossed my handful of nuts through the bars. From all ends of the cage, monkeys gathered around the pile of peanuts; all that is, except for the big one hiding in the shadows, eyes barely open. He had been sleeping against a man-made tree. The other monkeys picked apart the peanut shells, ripping them open and smacking on the nuts, chattering loudly. I tossed in a couple more.
I handed Kim and Mom a handful, which meant Don would get the last few, since I already had two handfuls. Now I was bored with the mindless brutes. Do they really sling their poop?
Don crawled up onto the railing and threw peanuts into the back of the cage. “Wow! Look at that big one.” He pointed out the huge monkey scattering the crowd of smaller primates to finish off the remaining peanuts.
“He sure is big.” Kim tossed the big ape several of her peanuts.
“Give me more,” Don shouted.
“Here’s the last.” I emptied the bag into his hands. “Hey Mom, what kind of monkey is that?” I pointed at the big one.
Mom looked at the chart and began reading off the names of various monkeys. She sounded like a toothache. Kim threw in her last few peanuts and climbed down from the rail.
Don tossed his last peanut at the big chimp. It hit the cage’s bar and fell outside, landing on the pavement below the “Keep Out” sign.
“Gosh!” exclaimed Don, jumping off the rail. He raced for the peanut.
Mom stopped reading and looked up. Her eyes grew twice their normal size, tightening the skin about them differently. “Don, get out of there!”
“What?” Don asked, turning his back to the cage. He looked up. “But Mom. I get peanut for monkey.”
Speechless, Mom waved at him as a hairy arm hovered above his head.
I watched in disbelief as the arm encircled Don’s neck and jerked him back against the bars, rattling them loudly. The big chimp tightened his grip. My brother grabbed at the arm pinning him to the cage, but he could not pull free.
I stood there, gaping, not knowing what to do.
Mom jumped over the bars while Don’s face turned from blood red to blue. She yanked at the hairy arm. Don struggled to breathe.
Mom yanked hard, but lost her grip.
His big hairy face close, the chimp sniffed Don’s right ear, smacking his thick lips. He bared his fangs and chattered loudly in Don’s ear. The sound chilled my heart. I didn’t mean to hate my brother. I love him, why would I hate him? He’s my brother! How could I ever wish such a thing?
Mom jerked at the arm around Don’s neck again. This time she jerked him free and helped him back onto the stone path.
“Are you all right?” Mom studied the red marks around his neck. The gashes were deep, but soap and water would clean up the wounds. “Didn’t I tell you to stay with your brother? Lord, boy, you’re lucky to be alive.”
“Yeah,” Don replied hoarsely. He nodded and rubbed his neck.
“We’re going home.” Mom grabbed his hand. “Let’s go.”
Too shocked to protest not being able to see the elephants, I followed Mom back to the car, hearing the monkeys behind us clamoring about their cages, chattering wildly with glee.
Randy L. White or R.L. White received a Master’s in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from UNC Charlotte in 2007. He has had stories published in Bartleby Snopes, Sanskrit, Helix Magazine, and The Monarch Review.
* * *
A North-South-Trending, Nested Graben
By Gregory T. Janetka
“I call 'em like I see 'em,” Danny says, laughing, after having described one woman at the dog park as “having her head up her ass,” and another as having a “camel hat” to go with her “camel butt.” I laugh too, although I have no idea what a camel hat or butt entails. A retired ex-Navy man now in his late 60s, I met Danny the last time I was in San Diego to visit my sister. He's offensive but harmless (and hilarious) and remembers me from years before, ready to immediately accept me back into the inner circle.
My sister left me with Rummy, her 100 pound cuddly beast of a bulldog, for a week. The morning is cool and he is full of energy. The palm fronds rustle in the breeze and the bell signals a train coming into the station as we make our way over to Little Italy. Out of sight saws and jackhammers indicate the city hasn't finished growing yet. Car horns honk. Stopped at the crossing I look up and watch as a woman steps out onto her balcony several stories up, topless. Realizing where she is, she throws her arms across her chest and runs back inside. A different beeping noise indicates we can cross the street.
Weaving our way through the city, we meander into Little Italy. This early on a nondescript Tuesday, the neighborhood is quiet as we turn onto First Street. The lazy morning is shattered as a man staring at the sidewalk begins yelling nonsense. All I can pick out is “Everything I touch turns to shit” as Rummy barks in disapproval. He doesn't like crazy. Calming him, we turn to see a shabby looking man walk past wearing several sombreros of varying sizes. He says nothing. We duck inside a local coffee house and I order an espresso. Loud yelling guy has circled back. He is talking to everybody and nobody.
The barista holds out a dog treat and in return receives a hand full of slobber. I apologize and thank her. I savor the thick black liquid as we make our way down to the water. The air is crisp and clean, the cleanest I've ever encountered in a big city at least. Purple trees line the way. What were they called? Someone told me multiple times but I still don't remember.
I notice a man on the other side of the street swinging a stick around. I stop and squint through the sun to see two older men at a bus stop playing baseball with a cane. I can't tell what they're using for a ball. The one in a white t-shirt looks very serious as he checks the imaginary runner on first before going into his windup and delivering the ball. A swinging strike. The one in a black t-shirt bends down to pick up the ball, reveling the top of his ass. I appear to be the only one taking in the scene. They throw a glance my way and Rummy and I proceed on.
Tourists mill about the boardwalk near the Maritime Museum. The Star of India, a tall ship, sits in harbor. As a child I'd always wanted to be a pirate – out on the seas, free and happy. “God their lives must have been miserable,” I think, and consciously decide to hold on to the romanticized version of history instead. What would it hurt?
Everything is so clean in the city. Except for when it's not. Then it reeks of urine and human suffering. It's exceptionally clean here by the water. For the tourists, sure, but it's nice nonetheless. I sit on a bench to people watch as Rummy settles in beside me, happy for a break. In the span of a few minutes I'm offered a ride by two pedicab drivers, both of which I politely refuse.
A girl in skin tight jeans slowly walks past, her arms full of coffee, a large handbag and her phone, which she isn't looking at. I try not to be too obvious when I look at her but keep looking anyway. She doesn't seem like a tourist, isn't even turning her head at the massive, historical ships. Maybe she's just like most of my generation and has no care for things unless they're immediate and/or digital. She's beautiful, but I quickly conclude I could never afford her and let her go, saying goodbye in my head to something else that'll never happen.
I throw back the last of the espresso, savoring each drop, toss the cup in the trash and breath in the sea air. I rub my face with my hands, hard, and picture what life would be like if I did have money and moved here and met that girl and watched her put on those jeans in the morning and take them off at night and say goodbye to her as she leaves our place to walk to work, passing the ships on her way.
Another pedicab pulls up and the fantasy is broken by a white guy with dreads.
“No thanks,” I say, fingering the last two quarters in my pocket. “We prefer to walk.”
Gregory T. Janetka is a writer from Chicago who unwittingly finds himself living in Huntsville, Alabama. He spends most of his time there looking in from the outside and drinking tea with his cat.
* * *
By John King
The tall, slender young woman is standing by her desk near the front of the empty classroom. The fact that her hair is pulled back tightly cannot disguise the reality that she is barely out of her teenage years, and the severe cut of the gray dress, together with her sensible shoes, gives no hint that beneath it all she is wearing a red petticoat.
Ella surveys the room, which is her domain. School is about to start on this crisp autumn day, as she once again thinks about how far Central Texas is from her home in Illinois, and from the Normal school that she attended there in order to get her teaching degree. As she looks around the room, at the chairs and small desks for the twenty-three children she is teaching, she notices little Bobby Ellis peeking around the edge of the cloakroom door.
“Robert, good morning.”
Bobby is unable to speak, but looks shyly at his shoes.
“Robert, since you are the first one here this morning, you get to ring the school bell.” She smiles at her youngest pupil, wondering if he can actually reach the bell rope. Soon she knows the answer, as the bell begins to peal, and her students, ranging from Bobby’s age of six years up to age fourteen, begin to trickle into the classroom.
“Good morning, Miss Rodecker.” As each child comes in, they wish her a good morning, and she promptly responds, calling them each by name. The second year of teaching is much easier than the first. It seems that the children are soaking up the knowledge she wants to give them so much more readily.
After a few minutes, she manages to seat all of the children, wish them a good morning, instruct them to take out their books, and to open their daily materials. As she turns to the blackboard, she notices the American flag centered above it, with its candy stripes and the forty-four stars in six rows. The top row has eight, the bottom row has eight, and the other four rows have seven each. The pictures on each side of the flag are of George Washington, President Cleveland, Sam Houston, and Robert E. Lee. Every time that she sees the picture of Robert E. Lee, it gives her a little start, to think that she, the daughter of a Union veteran, should be teaching beneath the picture of the great Confederate general. When she first took over her classroom, she had thought about taking it down, but the strangest thing had happened. A man barely older than she had come to the schoolhouse one late afternoon and asked her if she was the schoolteacher, even though the answer was so obvious. When she replied in the affirmative, he had asked if he could come later in the afternoons and if she would teach him to read and write. At the time, Ella had met none of the local people her own age, and, on an impulse, agreed to mentor the young man. On the second or third session, she had mentioned taking down Robert E. Lee’s picture. He looked at her very seriously, and he said “Ma’am, it’s been barely thirty years since he surrendered at Appomattox. People around here still think that Marse Robert is the greatest American hero. In addition, not only are you a Yankee, but you have a German last name. The Germans down at New Braunfels, just over fifty miles from here, tried to sneak through the Texan lines to join the Union army. Some of them were caught and killed, and there’s still bad blood about that. I would recommend that no matter how you feel, you should leave that picture in place.”
Ella thinks back about that conversation and realizes once again what a strange place this Central Texas is. As she looks at the third picture, she thinks about Sam Houston and Texas history. Even though she obtained her teaching degree, she had had to study Texas history on the long train ride from Illinois to Austin so she could pass the teaching certification test as soon as she got there. At the time, she felt so brave, leaving Illinois at age nineteen to go to a frontier state like Texas, but whatever trepidation she might have felt was quelled by her interest in history. While in Illinois, she was not aware of the fact that Texas had been a separate country, nor that Sam Houston had been not only the president of Texas, but also its first governor when it was admitted as a state. To make Texas seem even more quirky, she learned that Sam Houston had been the governor again in 1861 when Texas voted to secede from the Union, and that he refused to sign the secession papers, believing that Texas, after working so hard to become a part of the Union, should not leave it. Houston was removed as governor, the lieutenant governor was promoted and signed the papers, and Houston died two years later, from what some said was a broken heart.
Ella hears the whispering behind her and turns around, glaring at the pupils. The older pupils are a little bit hard to control, since they are within six years of her own age, but it still has to be done.
“Each of you take out the materials that I gave you for homework last night. All of you older section students begin to read the third chapter of your book, and I want all of you younger section students to come sit down in this corner while we start working again on your ABCs.”
Ella begins the little ones on their ABCs, and then looks out the window, since there is dust drifting through and she can hear the sound of cattle going by. She is aware that Texas’ economy is based on the cattle industry, and that American literature has already been infused with a new genre talking of the cowboys riding the trails from Texas up to the railheads in Kansas in order to ship the cattle east where they were so needed. However, the trail drives are now a thing of the past, since the railheads have moved, and Austin itself, some twenty miles southeast of the schoolhouse, is a railhead, and cattle are driven from all the surrounding areas into Austin. She watches the large herd of cattle going by, and smiles at the sight of the young cowboys, many of them teenagers, dressed up for the last leg of their journey into Austin. It seems as if all of them have brushed their hats, buffed their boots, and have fresh bandanas at their throats. She knows that this is only one of probably three or four groups that will go by that day, and each time there will be more dust sifting into the classroom. Thank goodness it is Friday, because on Saturday the students’ fathers will come to the classroom and help her clean. None of them can afford the full tuition, so part of the cost of having their children schooled is to give several hours every week to cleaning and maintaining the small one-room schoolhouse.
After the little ones finish the ABCs, Ella gathers them back with the older ones, and starts their civics lesson.
“Richard, can you tell us what we mean when we say that President Cleveland is the first President elected to non-successive terms of office?”
Dickie Johnson looks down at his slate, hoping that the answer will somehow appear, or, in the alternative, that there will be an earthquake where he will be swallowed up and not have to demonstrate to the other older children that he has no idea what the answer to the teacher’s question might be.
Suddenly, Dickie feels the schoolhouse begin to shake, and the earth itself begins to tremble. “Oh, my” Ella says, thinking how stupid it sounds to make such a statement in front of the children, and then “None of you leave your seats, stay right where you are.” While the children begin talking among themselves, Ella runs to the door, and looks down the steps. Coming toward her, several hundred yards away, is a mass of cattle, and what she knows is called a stampede. Some of the young cowboys are trying their best to stop the cattle, but all they are doing is guiding them more directly toward the schoolhouse. She knows she doesn’t have time to move the students, and she also knows that the clapboard building is too fragile to withstand the impact of several hundred large bodies.
She yells back through the door to the oldest boy, Glen, “Shut the door and lock it!” She can hear Glen following her instructions and she looks again at the mass of cattle coming closer. She is too concerned for her charges to think of her own safety. She runs to the bottom of the steps, and, oblivious to whomever might be looking, raises her skirt and rips off her petticoat. Once she manages to detach the garment, she waves it from one side to t he other and begins to scream like a Comanche Indian. She screams as the cattle approach, she screams more as the cattle continue coming closer. She screams and waves, waves and screams, until the front cattle begin to be spooked even worse than they were, and begin to part around her, and by definition, around the schoolhouse. The young cowboys trying to turn the herd realize what is happening, and fan further away, to let the cattle part on either side of the schoolhouse. They continue to race their horses as fast as they can in order to stop the herd before it damages something else further down the road. As the last cow runs by, Ella collapses at the bottom of the schoolhouse steps. She begins to shake so hard that she can no longer hold the petticoat in her hand. Her only thought at that moment is that she will not cry. She will not cry.
Suddenly, she hears another set of galloping hooves. She recognizes the sound as only one animal, and looks up expecting to see one of the young cowboys. Instead, the animal coming towards her is neither a cow nor a horse. Its rider guides his mule within just a few feet, jumps off, and stands before her. Unlike the cowboys with their shiny boots and their neckerchiefs, he is wearing a flannel shirt and a nondescript hat, a pair of patched overalls, and Brogans. He looks like what he is, which is a young farmer. When Ella sees him, all thoughts of crying are gone, and her eyes light up. “Why, John Lawson King, what are you doing here?”
“Miss Rodecker –"
“John, after a year I think it’s time you called me Ella.”
“Well, then, Ella, I saw the cattle heading toward the school, and I just couldn’t get ahead of them. I tried so hard, because I believed there was something in that schoolhouse that I couldn’t live without.”
“John, what a testament to learning.”
“I mean, Ella . . . you have to know what I am talking about.”
Suddenly, John does not look like just a tall young farmer; he looks closer to the proverbial knight in shining armor. And his mule, shaggy and gray, could just as easily be one of the finest chargers ridden by a knight of the round table.
Suddenly, Ella realizes that the children had come to the windows, and are staring at the trampled ground, at her with her red petticoat at her feet, and the young farmer standing in front of her.
“Well, John” she says, as she scrambles off the step and up to her feet, “I certainly appreciate your concern, and I think you need to come back to class later so we can talk about some of those verb conjugations you were working on.”
He looks at her, at the young woman he now knows is going to be his wife, feels a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth and says, “Yes, ma’am, I will certainly be here. I couldn’t live without conjugating verbs – or parsing sentences.”
John reaches down to pick up what appears to be a red rag on the ground. Ella stops him, saying “If you touch that, I will slap your jaws.” John jerks his hand away, mutters “Yes, ma’am,” and then gets onto the back of his mule. “I will see you later,” he says, and rides away.
With that, Ella kicks the ragged petticoat under the steps, smoothes her dress and hair, and walks toward the schoolhouse door, pursing her lips to stop the smile she knows is coming.
John King is a student in the Master of Liberal Studies program at the Glasscock School at Rice University. He lives with his wife Elizabeth in McAllen, Texas, where he enjoys the full time practice of law while commuting the 345 miles to Houston for class on a weekly basis.
* * *
Embracing the (Not-Yet-Fully-Formed) Teenage Brain
By Marty Ross-Dolen
The other night my son Sam and I were arguing at the dinner table. It started when he asked me if I would stay home and let Dad take him to his driving test alone. My feelings were hurt, which seemed to me understandable, and as I put down my fork I explained to him that this was a milestone in his life that I didn't want to miss and, as his mother, I wanted to be there to give him a big hug when it was over.
He would have none of it. He retorted angrily that I make him nervous, that I put way too much pressure on him, and that “Dad is the one who really taught [him] how to drive anyway.” I countered, feeling equally irate, pointing out that I had taken him driving almost as much as Dad and had taught him just as many rules of the road. What I didn't mention, of course, was what he also knew: Regardless of my willingness to get into his passenger seat, I would say a silent prayer before each venture, hoping it would not be my last, and that I would grip both arm rests with sweaty palms while practicing breathing exercises for the whole of the jaunt.
“This isn't about you, Mom,” Sam pointed out, exasperated and speaking the truth while leaning back in his chair, balancing on the two hind legs in that way that I regularly ask him not to.
* * *
No one ever told me that as a parent I would experience so much loss. Within weeks after his birth Sam grew out of his 3-month-size onesies, and as soon as I was dressing him in 6-month-size clothes, I had lost my lean newborn and gained a pudgy, smiling infant. With the onset of steps and words, I lost the baby and gained a toddler, and with jungle gyms and visits from the tooth fairy, the toddler left my side, and I welcomed a child.
And although it has been years now of mourning the loss of one stage while being introduced to another, I didn't expect to be quite so blindsided the way I have been by Sam’s adolescence. I imagine this is due in part to his new height—the fact that he grew six inches in less than a year. Once a baby in my arms, born long at 20½ inches, he now towers over me sixteen years later, and I have to gaze upward to make eye contact with him. His voice is deep, his legs are hairy, and when he wants to show me kindness, he engulfs me in his arms or offers to rub my shoulders, his hands big enough to reach from my clavicles in the front to my scapulae in the back and actually work through the tense muscles in between.
I miss the boy that used to sit on my lap, the lightness of who he was, the one who liked to wear the T-shirt with the picture of the tortoise on the front. I miss his lack of knowing, his innocence, his short legs, his bangs, the cowlicks in his hair, the basement floor filled with Legos, his little pairs of underpants, how he couldn't fall asleep without Lambie (the stuffed animal that I had to restuff, redress, and re-sew, twice). I miss my little boy, and, although I resist the thought every day, I can’t help but feel that he has disappeared.
* * *
So, meanwhile, I’m supposed to parent my teenage son and mourn the loss of my little boy at once. And this isn’t easy, because as much as I adore this new young man that has moved into my house, I only intermittently like him. He snaps at me, throws sneers my way, would rather chat with his friend-who-is-a-girl than let me in. He knows better than I do, almost always, and I watch him as he forges his way through his future, throws the picnic blanket that is his life onto the grass, welcoming the offers of delicacies that he may or may not like, preparing to bring the four corners together at once, hoist the whole over his shoulder, tie it to a stick, and begin his onward trek that is in the opposite direction of me.
But then he will surprise me. We will be sitting on the couch next to one another, and I will be telling him why he has frustrated me (he forgot to take out the garbage again) or why he has scared me (I told him to be home by midnight) or why I worry about his ability to take care of himself one day (a single bag of potato chips for lunch is not a nutritious meal). And I will always remind him that I love him and nothing will change that. Then he leans his heavy body toward mine and wraps me in his long arms and puts his big head in my lap. And we sit there, for a long time, in silence, and I run my fingers through his thick black hair, still fraught with cowlicks. And I think that maybe my little boy isn't actually gone. Maybe he’s just hidden away.
* * *
My greatest challenge in raising Sam has been guiding him into the person that he is meant to be on his own, rather than the person that I would be if I were him. It would be easy to expect him to play the roles I wish I’d played, follow the rules that I ignored, and turn into a miniature male version of myself, only better, without all the mistakes. But the way that he bucks me, wants me off his back, changes his passwords without my knowing to keep me away, keep me at bay, makes it nearly impossible for me to control his youth the way I feel I am charged to as his mother.
Of course, I know that I am supposed to be letting him go. Intellectually, this makes perfect sense. He has reached an age and the physical ability to make a lot of his own decisions without me. And I do believe that I have managed to instill in him some core values that will keep him kind and caring toward others, mostly honest, and respectful of society. So in some ways I know that I am ahead of the game.
But what if I could have been there, helped him make that decision that he makes, the one that leads to something devastating and irreversible? Perhaps I could have warned him about getting into that car or taking all those drugs at once or not heeding the warning signals when that train was coming. I will explain to the police officer that I tried to tell him, that I offered to stay with him, always, that I promised I would keep him safe. And then I will fall into a heap, a lifeless bag of bones and skin, and I won’t rise up, ever, through all my remaining years. I will spend the rest of my life there, in that place, the place where I will become hollow, the place where I will lose my soul, become a mere skeleton of myself. The place where I was told that my beloved son is dead.
* * *
The opportunities for my mere presence to embarrass Sam over the years have been in great abundance. But never have I felt more publicly unwanted than I do now by my sixteen-year-old son. When he refuses to be seen in town with me, ducking in the car if we pass a friend or insisting on takeout rather than dining in a neighborhood restaurant, I must remind myself of the moments that we have when we’re alone together, brief wisps of time when he might ask me for advice or see if I’ll test him on his flash cards. Times when I’m not the enemy, the rule maker, the embarrassing mother. Times when I can hope to instill yet one more piece of wisdom, beg him to heed one more warning.
And I must remember that this stage, like every other one in its wake, will be gone forever too. That soon I will be losing my sixteen-year-old to a seventeen-year-old, and so on, and so on. Before long we will be celebrating his high school graduation, and then college will likely follow, with maybe more school after that, or a job. Perhaps he will move far away from me, or maybe he will return home, temporarily, before he marries, or doesn't, or has children, or doesn't.
* * *
“Please don’t do that to the chair,” I requested, and as Sam settled the two front chair legs back to the floor, I took a bite of my pasta and sat quietly before attempting to explain my reaction. I knew that his request that I not attend his driving test didn't mean that I was a terrible mother. But I still couldn't help but feel that the very essence of my role as a parent was at stake.
“Sam,” I said, “I think this conversation would have gone a lot better if you had asked me not to go to your driving test in a different way. Instead, you could have said, ‘Mom, thank you so much for helping me learn how to drive. I just wonder if it would be okay with you if Dad took me to the test alone, because I will feel less nervous that way.’”
Sam put down his fork and looked at me.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” he said slowly, with a continued effort to contain that part of him that wanted to explode. “I’m sorry that my brain is not fully formed yet, and that I am not able to put words together and formulate sentences in the way that you can, given that you have lived thirty years longer than I have.”
With that, a secret, knowing smile formed in my heart.
It’s okay, Sam, I thought. Take your time. There’s no rush.
Marty Ross-Dolen is a retired child psychiatrist currently staying home to raise her two children. She devotes her time to writing and volunteering in her community. She has attended several writing conferences and three graduate-level creative nonfiction classes at The Ohio State University. Her work is forthcoming in Forge.
* * *
Drowning in Clarity
By Chila Woychik
The water swirls first in one place then another, large concentric circles expanding wider and wider before gently merging with the stiller water around it. This could mean bass, or maybe northern pike; the lake contains both. A strong cool wind fits and stammers. The gray clouds have moved eastward and the sun glares above. Wind and sun, wind and sun: braided felicity.
We’ve found a sheltered spot here, a friend and I. We sit in foldable director’s chairs. She draws; I write. She wears a cap. We are artsy.
A blue-black dragonfly rides atop a second dragonfly. This is not spring mating; this is not spring. This is merely animal attraction in July. I look at my friend; she is drawing a tree.
The weeds are flowers, blooming, bloomed, green and white and some parts brown, the dying, dead. Lavender is here too, tinges of pink. These too will brown one day but today they bliss my world with vibrance. I reel in wonder in the inner woman; the beauty is my lunch, the dying my dessert.
The dragonfly thrums—a mating ritual? A bumble bee engages a clover blossom nearby then another and another. It inches closer. I move to avoid confrontation. Once when I was young, I went walking barefoot in our yard and stepped on a group of bees, they tell me. They tell me it was a horrible experience, the yelling, the swelling, the fear. They told me years ago and it’s stuck with me since, and stinger-like it lingers. I move my director’s chair a second and third time, and the bee moves on, disregards me, knows it makes the stronger point.
Trees ring this large manmade lake—a nuclear power plant reservoir lake—and provide a home for deer and nameless other creatures, fisher folk. There are walking trails and airplane-sized mosquitoes, riding trails and gnats that strike and welt, an area for campers and numberless no-see-ums with no-regard. I’ve seen snakes. The question as always is what price we will pay for an excursion into nature, and is the heart brave enough, the skin thick enough?
A ringing like a cell phone occurs a short distance away. My purse is suspect but it’s only a bird. And it’s a sad day when I can no longer identify the innocence of a bird call. (I silently condemn technological intrusions while thanking the powers that be for bug spray in technologically-brilliant pump bottles.)
A spurt of wind bursts through the trees behind me and another in front. My hair explodes at the convergence of the two. Before I know it, I find myself clinging to my chair in neck-high water. I panic. I yell. My immediate concern is that I will be forgotten in the end.
My companion sits calmly by and continues to draw. She may be on the leaves now and it’s intricate work. I flail my arms but it’s no use; I can’t swim. The seconds are years then an eternity, but the chair holds. I believe, then, that I can make it to shore because my left big toe touches a rock. The moss is soft, the rock’s size is moderate; my confidence grows.
Then a stealthy slipping around occurs at my ankle, on the left foot that touches the rock. It wraps around, this slipping thing, completes the ligature, once, twice, three times. Bees come to mind, but I can’t move my chair this time, can’t escape the threat. I feel sick and worry more and yell louder, the loudest yet. Still, the woman draws. She may want to sign it Van Gogh.
The gripping thing yanks and I go down, dragged along for feet or yards, I’m not sure, I just know it’s down and some along. I’m gulping water now and air is spent, the “life flashing before my eyes” nonsense flashes too, and it’s real as the Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Brownie single serving ice cream I had earlier in the day—this is how real.
I can’t see it—this thing. It continues to pull me backward through the water. If only I could flip over, get a better position, but I can’t swim.
The water is blue, no, never blue but in swimming pools and films (ever notice how the older movies of ocean scenes actually looked like ocean scenes and not a Hollywood swimming pool made up to look like an ocean like many of today’s ocean scenes?). Khaki is the color. With patches of shimmering silver where the wind riffles along the top of it and lifts it slightly. Khaki, dark, and deep. Close up to the windswept shore is detritus, fallen leaves, algae, me. Dead things breaking down into simpler matter.
The view is beyond spectacular so I go limp, quit fighting, watch and learn. I sketch in my mind’s eye. My brain absorbs the water and the words.
I write from shore, close to shore, from my director’s chair. My friend lays her 7B pencil aside. A dog barks from a boat nearby; maybe he too seeks sense beyond ringing technology and weediness, and maybe, like me, the wind and sun shamble his conceit.
And daisies. There are daisies on the hillside. My vision has cleared once more.
Chila Woychik lives in Iowa with her husband, a couple of Jeeps, and chickens that lay green eggs. When not working the farmstead, she edits at a small literary press. Her latest published pieces appeared in or are forthcoming in The Mayo Review & Cleaver.
* * *
Poems By Nancy Devine
Wide ribbons of dead pitched
in the ditch
near the edge of the river on our property: carp, the water’s monsters,
this pool’s bullies,
the indiscriminate gourmands
who swallow walleye fry
and baby bass as benign as the cattails along the shore.
Skewered on spears and abandoned, they roiled
like this river churns up,
flipped and gasped as we have when we're accidentally submerged. They rot with the sun,
becoming altars for horse and deer flies perpetual communion of scale and gill.
When our dog rolls over
and into this mess of mesentery,
his body a pestle in this mortar of sand, a gift of gut in which he wallows,
the smell is so brutal
we curse it as if we don’t know
the fin of finish,
the decomposition of our story.
The Shape of the Liquid the Body Can Displace
As a boy, my husband waded into the St. Croix River like he waded into my life,
a child both times, wily, expectant,
curious about how silt
gives with each step or hugs feet.
Perhaps he loved water sounds:
one perfect H2O molecule nudging
another along shimmering paths between Minnesota and Wisconsin or the shape of the liquid his young body displaced,
a foreshadowing of the man around which air we breathe hovers, moves in.
He didn’t know how to swim.
So when he went too far, got too deep, he went under, he’s told me.
Where he must have seen weeds,
I imagine green flames
or streamers rippling in dark blue wind,
because, one by one,
he grabbed them to pull himself to the other shore across from where his mother had told him to stay.
She has often cautioned
that what first attracts you to someone
is also what angers you most:
water running deep
in bodies we might never completely fill.
Esprit de Corps
My anatomy speaks pain
the way a god coughs up edicts: a slimy trickle along the chin.
My being can tell you hurt
in languages not yet invented and in those that have died, in tongues plaited or braided like a working horse’s tail.
I never dreamed I could know this: an uprising of nerves,
a synaptic coup.
And if I had been armed
with the foreknowledge
of the agony of my own elbows,
knees, scapulae swords sheathed in me, I might’ve lain down
inside my own crying,
as if it were the cave
where women sought the buried Jesus.
Maybe this is about choice;
maybe this is a poem about will. Nonetheless, I move forward now
my body its own whipping post or knot.
Nancy Devine teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota where shes live. She is a writing specialist for the Red River Valley Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals.
* * *
Poems By Juan Pablo Duboué
Chewing their chewing gum
Its minty juice
Burns my face
Especially when it reaches my eyes
As soon as the school bus drops me off
Like a bag of potatoes,
old, blackened and cheap.
I smile at their spitting and pushing
In the playground
While the teachers stare at me in obvious surprise
Well their eyes do not seem to show any shock at all
It is I, right?
It is the usual routine
A little bit of good ol’ Catholic discrimination
What are you looking at, priest?
See how they’re making a man out of me?
I do not complain no more
There is a point when the area being hit
And I do not feel
So I lay in the comfort of the grass
Conjure up an image of Aurora
And plunge into a sweet slumber
That I wish would last
A hundred years.
Chewing their chewing gum
Its minty juice
Burns my face
Especially when it reaches my eyes…
To My Fairy Godmother:
If a fairy godmother is what I need
to make my dreams come true,
to make me see
that the man that stands before me
is the man I once despised.
And now I’m wedding him,
an alliance of demise.
If a fairy godmother I had had
she would have surely warned me beforehand
that the man who keeps it quiet,
is the man who, in the bedroom, makes one rot.
If a fairy godmother would have come
to my rescue, a gentleman in disgrace.
She would have taken the bull by its horns
and domesticated it
to a point of no return.
For I resemble a woman or so they say:
In how I feel and how I sense,
In how I move and how I speak,
In the career that I’ve chosen to pursue…
In the role that I’ve been begged, over and over,
In the prevalence of right hemisphere over left
and other psychological shenanigans I dare not say;
I do not feel Woman.
My ‘gender’ tells me woman I am not.
And so does my psyche,
and so does my heart,
and so do my hairy armpits,
and my penis.
Why can’t I be
with a sixth sense
and a well developed taste?
If only my fairy godmother
would have listened to my parents’ prayers.
And straightened me up
the hell out of me
The Summer of our Love
In the summer of our love
the heat has become too unbearable,
the poppies are drying
the pond is evaporating
the thrushes no longer migrate
they stare at each other, melting
melting away like rocks into diamonds
and back into rocks
Gargoyles of thrushes in the still oaks
in the summer of our love.
In the summer of our love
the heat has consumed our foundations
suffocating what used to be gasps of pleasure
and moans of desire
the fairies are burning
the gnomes are unruly
the elves are shrinking
into ageing dwarves
a resemblance of your ego
and my self- esteem issues
in the summer of our love.
In the summer of our love
the heat has flooded my cheeks
not the healthy blushing of two lovers intertwined
but the blazing flames of a fire in disguise
the poppies are drying
the pond is evaporating
the thrushes no longer migrate
they stare at each other, melting
melting away like rocks into diamonds
and back into rocks
Gargoyles of thrushes in the still oaks
in the summer of our love.
Juan Pablo Duboue was born in Mendoza, Argentina in 1986. Currently pursuing a masters in Contemporary English Literature, he works as a teacher, interpreter and translator. Apart from writing poetry and short stories, Juan Pablo Duboue is also a singer and a ballet dancer.
* * *
In Defense of a Cliche
By Conor Miggan
Kill your darlings they say
Burn your loves the have no place in good writing
There are no more writers only rewriters
Rewriting everything with a happy ending for once
Kill your darlings?
Kill your teachers
I want to see what Ginsberg saw
To drink what Bukowski drank
A glimpse of Immortality would be nice
Conor Miggan is 27 years old, originally from Dublin, now residing in London.
* * *
Poems By William Miller
My sister had one,
played with it for hours.
Barbie even had a beach house,
a sports car, too.
But she was too perky,
perfect, smiled as if
she never felt any pain.
Her perfect house
wasn’t like ours; my parents
fought by not fighting,
a wall of ice between them.
One afternoon, my mother
and sister were
at the grocery store.
I unscrewed Barbie’ s head,
put it inside an Easy Bake Oven,
and turned up the heat,
a single light bulb.
It didn’t take long before
the head exploded, goo
and blond hair stuck
to the walls.
I got whipped for that
with a leather belt,
had my father’s
full attention for once.
My sister got another Barbie,
seemed happy when
she played with it, until
one afternoon I snatched
the doll from its pink case.
I put Barbie, face down,
on the railroad track
that ran near our house.
The train wheel cut through
her neck; the blond
head rolled into the ditch,
still smiling …
My parents divorced;
my sister was raised by
an aunt. I lived with my
mother until I was old
enough to run away.
And I still hate Barbie,
her living sister in cute
sunglasses and yellow sundress.
She’ll never look twice at a
short guy like me, malice
in my eyes.
And she’ll never pick me up
in her sports car, take me
to that perfect house
where there is no ice, no one
blows up the heads of dolls.
We won’t sit on her deck,
holding hands while the sun
goes down, bright smiles
on our plastic faces.
St. Francis and the Leper
Before he preached,
before he did any holy
thing, Francis had
to eat with a leper.
And that was because
he feared the leper more
than other outcasts,
the blind, the maimed ...
One day, he bought
a loaf of plain bread
In the market, walked
and climbed his way
to the top of a rocky
hill above the town.
the lepers lived in a
cave, survived on small
donations from a church
that never sent a priest
to cleanse or even pray
Francis sat down beside
a man in a torn, brown
cloak, his face hidden
by a hood.
Francis sat close, close
enough to touch
the cracked, purple skin
of his fingers.
He tore off a piece
of bread, and Francis did too;
they ate in silence as there
were no words to say.
But that bread was like
manna to Francis, a gift
from heaven. His fear
was gone completely
when he kissed the leper's
feet ... On the twisted
path to town, Francis
knew it was time to preach
to poor men and women,
God's creatures too.
and he would rebuild
a church fallen into
rubble, broken glass ...
One glorious Sunday,
the leper would wal
through the door first,
then the beaten,
Christ's church on earth.
An old pit bull, he sleeps
on a throw rug
in my front room.
He kicks, grunts
and snarls as if chasing
or being chased.
This is just instinct,
I tell myself, how he
still survives in dreams.
But maybe that isn't all,
maybe he dreams of
a time long ago when
he and his kind roamed
the edges of Roman camps,
barked at any strange noise.
Before that he might have
been a wild, graveyard dog,
digging up corpses
gnawing the bones.
His deepest dream is
of iron gates he
guarded, the gates of hell
itself. He kept damned
souls from escaping ...
He wakes up slowly,
shakes his massive head
and waits for the leash.
We turn down a gas lit
street, and he still growls
at the meanest dogs.
And when the street
is empty, he barks
at things only he can see.
The man who killed the man
who killed Lincoln
went slowly insane.
He heard the voice of God,
telling him to fire through
a crack in the barn wall.
He shot Booth in the back
of the head, the wound
near Lincoln's own ...
In Washington, he was
a hero, even signed
autographs in taverns
or on wooden sidewalks.
He was discharged with honor,
lived off the reward
money, the killer's portion.
But some men wanted him
or those who loved
the south in secret, called
him a coward, spat tobacco
juice at his feet. He hated
his fame, wanted to live
where no one knew him,
his face. He drifted west,
to Kansas, slept in a
cheap men's hotel.
But he dreamed Booth
returned for his blood
this time. An angry crowd
stood behind him ...
He stopped eating,
walked the streets for three
days without sleep,
until they put him
in a limestone cell.
But he wasn't free,
not even there.
Lincoln's eyes were sad
but purposeful. His killer
was the handsome,
young actor before
the burning barn.
One sleepless night,
he pulled an iron bar
from the only window
and fled to Mexico.
Some said it was a dirt
farm in Minnesota ...
Most likely he died
alone, crazy from
pride and guilt,
never heard God's voice
again. He escaped from
history but not himself.
Texting While Driving
She only wanted to say hi,
send "lol" to a good friend
who lived just give
She got a text, sent
another, eyes off the road
for two seconds
when she crossed
the double line,
smashed into a truck ...
There was a church service,
and the preacher preached
about a wonderful young
woman, kind, cheerful,
never said a bad word
But God had his reasons,
a "plan for each of us,"
then called her home.
Walking back to their
cars from the grave,
many were checking
their phones, texting
or answering texts.
Her brother and two pall bearers
rode in one car, but put
their phones away when
the engine turned over.
Halfway to the first house,
her brother got a text
he ignored, a second
that made him reach
into his pocket,
check caller ID.
The third, he had to answer,
was from a hot chick he'd
met in a club a week ago,
He said he was driving;
she answered "What,
The one who lived
said no girl was worth
dying for, "though some babes
you've got to text
or lose forever."
Black Sharecroppers, 1930
In high cotton or not,
they had no place
left to go, no place
to rest before they
died of old age.
Their children were
dead from pleurisy
or worked in mills
so far north
they never came home.
They both agreed
it was their only choice--
soon they would be
blind or crippled
beneath the rusted roof.
And they dressed
in their church clothes,
helped each other
with the buttons,
put on their good shoes.
The pistol was a revolver,
handed down from
the war itself,
fired on a far-off
Slavery ended but hell
didn't, seed money
and a mule for
cotton owed at
the end of the season.
One bad year, and they
owed double the next,
until there was no escape,
just the hazy heat
and endless rows.
At the very end,
he pulled the cold
trigger on his
dear wife's bowed,
He shot himself
before he had time
to think about
the awful thing he'd
just done ...
The young black family
into their house,
picked the summer
They believed they'd
get ahead, never
see too much sun
or far too little,
plow their own graves.
William Miller has been previously published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He is a widely-published poet, children's author and mystery novelist. He lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
* * *
By John Petriccione
People live for other people
pondering on the church steeple
What drives others is eachothers
Now if some were to die
why would you cry?
Why accomplish if not for people,
direct or indirect?
The recognition to life's recognition
We’re all just one people
One ultimate desire
with or without god higher
Love is what we crave
a beautiful disaster
In our souls
Whatever that is.
John is a bit of dreamer. He likes to have this idea of what he can and wants to do. Can he actually do it? I'm not entirely sure, but for his sake I hope so. He loves poetry. Doesn't do it for the money either. What a weirdo.
* * *
By Dawn Schout
Give me red
roses, beautiful with thorns,
Say you’ve never known
true beauty till now.
Pay for my wants to fill
I can’t fill in you.
Try to get a foothold.
I am the stone queen,
and cold as cliffs.
Love is not something I know,
as the bottom of the Rhine.
Fingers can’t pull out thorns
meant to embed.
Climb the Alps, spattered with castles,
and plunge into the river
because you can’t have me.
I leap from the throne they put me on.
Can’t close my eyes any more
and squeeze out tears.
They planted me
in the Rhine Valley,
now a statue
facing a castle
where a man lives alone,
my exposed back to the Alps.
Thought I was stone before.
I still hear
your cries, fill this river with tears.
Dawn Schout’s poetry has appeared in more than 50 publications, including Dagda Publishing, Foliate Oak, Poetry Quarterly, Red River Review, and Tipton Poetry Journal. She was nominated for Best of the Net in 2013. Her debut poetry collection, Wanderlust, is scheduled to be published in January 2015 by WordTech Editions.
* * *
Artwork by Steve Cartwright
It's well known that an artist becomes more popular by dying, so our pal Steve Cartwright is typing his bio with one hand while pummeling his head with a frozen mackerel with the other. Stop, Steve! Death by mackerel is no way to go!He ( Steve, not the mackerel ) has done art for several magazines, newspapers, websites, commercial and governmental clients, books, and scribbling - but mostly drooling - on tavern napkins. He also creates art pro bono for several animal rescue groups. He was awarded the 2004 James Award for his cover art for Champagne Shivers. He recently illustrated the Cimarron Review, Stories for Children, and Still Crazy magazine covers.
Artwork by Thomas Gillapsy
Thomas Gillaspy is a northern California based photographer with an interest in urban minimalism. He utilizes modest digital camera equipment and has eschewed formal training in the field, preferring to try and find his own technique, methodology and style. His photography is forthcoming in a number of journals including:Streetlight Magazine, Apeiron Review, Suisun Valley Review and Citron Review.
Stone Loaves by Daniel Madden
Daniel Madden is an art student and aspiring photographer from southern California. He is currently in the process of earning his BA Degree from Cal State San Bernardino. His photographs primarily explore architecture, incorporating elements of abstraction and formalism.
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